[Summary: Are you really in control of your actions? Comments on recent neurological research into the process of decision making]
Wired magazine is running an article on yet more research into the brain and the nature of conscious experience – a topic well introduced by Dr Holly at the WBU in April 2008. The topic is inviting to further inquiry, especially for meditators, as it asks the question: Are the Brain and the Mind different things?
Neurological research is sketchy. We have dissected the brain and neurons to the smallest degree, but still find no ‘thinking’ mechanism. We know how neurons work, there is no ‘black box’ that we can’t penetrate there, but still have no idea how these firing neurons formulate the conscious experience.
This new article in wired demonstrates that what we take as conscious thought – where our decisions are made – is really anything but. Our decisions are taken by areas of the brain that are not conscious, and the conscious ‘deciding’ comes seconds later.
Meditators should know this well. We often refer to this as the ‘commentator‘. Basically the mind works in a subtle realm of notions, and only after a decision is made does the mind commentate on the action. If you ‘decide’ to get up and make some tea, you will find the commentator verbalizes the thought after you have already gotten up out of your seat and find yourself half way to the kitchen.
As a child, one particularly joyful way to annoy people was to follow them around and ‘order’ them to do what they were already doing. If mother is making dinner, you go in and order her to. If someone turns left while driving, you order them too. Whatever they do, you order them to do it – as if it is all down to you. The ‘commentator’ is very much like this. It is your conscious thought that comments on, and takes credit for, all your actions. It even takes credit for its own comments.
If you are practicing mindfulness you see these decisions, movements of the will, subtle impulses, and the comments that fire up noisily afterwards. It leads directly to the experience of ‘non-self’ as you realise the ‘you’ that takes credit for your actions and thoughts, is an impostor. It is nothing more than an annoying child following you about, pretending to be in charge.
According to the article, decisions are made before you are conscious of making them. However this is only because most people spend their whole lives dwelling in the basest, most coarse part of the conscious experience. In Buddhist terminology, you are dwelling at the tail end of the process of consciousness (Dependent Origination). Training in meditation opens up whole realms that were outside of your attention preciously.